Alexander Hamilton the Writer
By Donald Challenger
In the ruthless shorthand to which historical figures are reduced, Alexander Hamilton is the powdered wig on the $10 bill and the luckless statesman on the wrong end of Aaron Burr's dueling pistol. Students of history may know better, but sometimes not a great deal more: Hamilton, as the first secretary of the U.S. Treasury and the chief author of The Federalist Papers, is too often dismissed as a sort of Founding Office Manager — the detail man fussing over ledgers and protocol while Washington willed a nation into being and Jefferson penned its soul on parchment.
Such caricatures are perhaps inevitable, but Hamilton has suffered more than the standard indignities. In his own time, Hamilton's critics willfully misrepresented his political vision, and later generations of historians did little to correct the record. As recently as last summer, a determined lobby sought to evict him from his longtime home on the $10 bill, to be replaced by Ronald Reagan. "To this day," Ron Chernow writes in his recent biography, Alexander Hamilton, "he seems trapped in a crude historical cartoon that pits 'Jeffersonian democracy' against 'Hamiltonian aristocracy.'"
But now, two centuries after he was mortally wounded on a stony plot across the Hudson from Manhattan, Hamilton is emerging from historical limbo. His reappraisal rests in part on Chernow's acclaimed profile as well as several others, including a 1999 biography by Richard Brookhiser, Alexander Hamilton, American. Both volumes — Chernow's comprehensive psychological and social portrait, and Brookhiser's slim, focused, ideological study — dismantle the conventional take on Hamilton as the young republic's resident worrywart and closet monarchist. Brookhiser is also serving as curator for an innovative new exhibition on Hamilton at the New-York Historical Society. But much of the heavy lifting involved in resurrecting Hamilton as a political visionary — and, just as important, as a writer -- is taking place on the campus that bears his name.
Douglas Ambrose, the Sidney Wertimer Associate Professor of History, states the case in a phrase: "He's not just a money guy."
Carl Menges '51, a Hamilton trustee and retired investment banker who describes himself as "absolutely immersed" in 18th-century American history, has played a crucial role. Menges initiated and underwrote a 2001 conference on Hamilton that brought Brookhiser and nearly two dozen other scholars from across the nation to campus. (New York University Press plans to publish the papers presented at the conference as a volume next spring.) Menges also was instrumental in Chernow's September appearance at the College Chapel and a conference devoted to the Caribbean island of Nevis, Hamilton's birthplace in 1755. Menges ticks off the particulars of Hamilton's legacy quickly, as if impatient with the glacial pace of public opinion:
- As a mover behind the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the lead author of The Federalist Papers, Hamilton played a key part in persuading a skittish young nation to forsake the feeble Articles of Confederation and embrace — if reluctantly — strong federal authority.
- He framed the nation's credit policy and financial philosophy, "sold George Washington on the idea of a central bank," and laid much of the groundwork for American capitalism in his essays.
- His 1791 Report on Manufactures — "brilliant but little-remembered" — made the prophetic case, in an era when 95 percent of the population farmed, that industry and technology would be essential to the economic health of the nation.
- He wrote most of Washington's 1796 farewell address, setting out key principles of foreign policy for the first time as well as choreographing Washington's graceful withdrawal from public life.
- He was a superb lawyer — Chernow notes that The Federalist Papers have been cited nearly 300 times in Supreme Court opinions — and perhaps the most influential journalist of his day.
What can get lost in the sheer wattage of that résumé is the power of Hamilton's pen; virtually all of his major accomplishments were written ones. It's a theme Menges underscores as he witnesses the historical re-evaluation of Hamilton.
"In some ways, Hamilton has been pushed to the backwaters of American political history, but I think that is changing," Menges says. "One way or another, you can substantiate the claim that Hamilton wrote so brilliantly about political philosophy, about banking and related subjects, that he shaped the thinking of George Washington and other contemporaries. To a large degree, therefore, he shaped the country we have today.
"It's a great, great asset to the College to have such a deep connection to a writer of that excellence and that stature."
Not only to do, but to write and to explain
It's no coincidence, Chernow said during a recent interview, that Alexander Hamilton's legacy is so deeply linked to his prose. "He really gave us a wonderful model of a public servant who felt obligated to provide trenchant, comprehensive explanations of his policies. He felt that part of his mission was not only to do, but to speak and to write and to explain." It is a mission mirrored in the College's own commitment to clear, concise writing as an integral part of undergraduate education.
Hamilton was not a typical man of words, however. His commitment to the rhetoric of persuasion could border on the obsessive. Torrents of prose poured from his quill. "I always felt that Hamilton was a human word machine," Chernow says. He cites the 22,000 pages from the founder's pen that make up the Columbia University Press collection of his works, and notes that Hamilton was killed when he was just 49. "When I first started reading Hamilton and saw the extraordinary scale of his writings, I wondered, 'How did he do this?'"
Chernow laughs as he recalls a story about Harold Syrett, editor of the intimidating 32-volume Columbia collection, which took 26 years to complete — nearly as long as Hamilton wrote. True or not, it's a revealing bit of gossip: Syrett "used to joke that he planned to dedicate the series to Aaron Burr, without whose cooperation the series of Hamilton's writings would never have been completed."
If it ultimately took a bullet to silence Hamilton, it required only an accident of birth to impress upon him the power of a gifted pen to open doors, says Carl Rubino, the Edward North Professor of Classics. Rubino, who was widely quoted in the media during the summer dust-up over replacing Hamilton with Reagan on the ten-spot — he called it "an act of ignorance" — co-teaches a sophomore seminar, Classics and Government: Cicero, Hamilton and Jefferson. He observes that Hamilton, like the Roman statesman and rhetorician Cicero, was an outsider who willed his entry into the ruling class by educating himself and writing with preternatural insight and grace.
An illegitimate child born in the West Indies and orphaned at 12 — "the bastard brat of a Scottish pedlar," John Adams snorted — Hamilton railed at the humiliations of both circumstance and geography through his teenage years while working as a clerk for an export-import company on St. Croix. His ticket out came in the form of a fortuitous hurricane, Rubino notes. Days after the storm devastated the Caribbean in August 1772, Hamilton penned an apocalyptic account of events that showcased his still-maturing power as a writer. "Death comes rushing on in triumph, veiled in a mantle of tenfold darkness," he wrote. The effects of the hurricane were "sufficient to strike astonishment into angels." The essay was published in the local newspaper, and the response was so overwhelming that influential locals established a fund to send Hamilton to King's College, later Columbia University, to be educated.
"He was the first Horatio Alger," Rubino says. "He literally came from nowhere to be secretary of the treasury and Washington's go-to guy. He was the original underdog who made it."
Chernow reads a great deal into Hamilton's boyhood experiences on St. Croix and their effect on him as a writer. Psychologically, he must have understood very early that writing was an act of self-creation that freed him from the circumstances of his birth and boyhood; in a sense, Hamilton literally composed himself. As he matured, the work of self-creation increasingly became the work of shaping a nation similarly engaged in creating itself. America, too, was an outsider using classical models to illuminate and shape its hidden strengths and join the community of nations — not hat in hand, but on equal terms. Or better.
Chernow also sees a practical side to Hamilton's island youth. "What seemed to be his greatest misfortune in a certain way ended up being his greatest stroke of fortune," the biographer says. Before he had even begun his King's College education, "he'd had an enormous amount of real-world experience in terms of international trade and watching the comings and goings of ships in the Caribbean, having a first-hand experience of the clash of different international powers." It grounded him in the nuts and bolts of business operations at the same time that it gave him "what we might call today a more 'multicultural' experience" than the other more aristocratic founders.
"This makes Hamilton more cosmopolitan — and freer to think disturbing thoughts."
Finding his voice in The Federalist
"Disturbing," "dangerous," "unconventional" — adjectives we are not accustomed to seeing next to Hamilton's name. What could be more conventional, after all, than taxes, stable banks and commerce, and a strong federal government, the themes to which he returned again and again? But Hamilton argued his case not in an America where such institutions were a fact of life, but in an America where the center barely held — where border skirmishes and trade disputes between states were a reality, where national debt spiraled out of control, and where mob rule and secession were chronic threats.
His conviction that the rights of citizens and states must be balanced with the rights of an energetic national government to tax, make war, and regulate civic and commercial life are now so deeply carved into the national psyche that, at a glance, Hamilton often seems to be the voice of the status quo. He was far from it at the time, however. The very fact that, in the 21st century, we debate government and public institutions largely on Hamilton's terms is a measure of his prescience and rhetorical skill. Frank Anechiarico, the Maynard-Knox Professor of Government and Law, observes, "We idealize the country according to Jefferson's writings, but we live in Hamilton's country."
Anechiarico, who teaches the classics and government sophomore seminar with Rubino, believes with many scholars that The Federalist Papers represent Hamilton's apogee as a writer. "His rhetoric there is addressed to a very wide audience, and I think it really does produce some ringing phrases," Anechiarico says. He recalls the cadences of Federalist No. 1, in which Hamilton writes:
"... it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide this important question: whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force."
The publication of The Federalist Papers, a series of newspaper pieces written in defense of the freshly inked Constitution of the United States, was perhaps Hamilton's defining moment. And it was, almost literally, a moment. The 85 installments of The Federalist, at least 51 of them by Hamilton in Chernow's count, were composed in just eight months, between October 1787 and May 1788, in a race against the calendar as the states took up the ratification process. At one point Hamilton wrote 21 essays in two months; three times he wrote five or more in a week. (Students, don't try this at home.)
The pressure must have been "staggering," Ambrose says. The fate of the nation seemed to hang in the balance. Hamilton, enlisting the aid of James Madison and John Jay — who soon bailed out with health problems — had first aimed simply to convince New York delegates to ratify the hotly debated Constitution. But the series soon took on a greater scope and urgency. "Once they got going," Ambrose says, "they realized that they could speak to a broader audience than New York."
Ironies abound around The Federalist Papers. One, Ambrose notes, is that they probably did not do what they were intended to do — shape the public opinion of the day as advocacy journalism. Instead, they were enshrined as grand statements of principle. Hamilton and Madison "didn't set out to write a treatise on political theory or the nature of government," Ambrose says. "It's amazing how quickly The Federalist Papers assumed that position in American and international political discourse."
But perhaps the most revealing irony involves Hamilton's own psyche as a writer. In many of his other works, Brookhiser says, Hamilton had a penchant for "too much 18th-century wind." He found it hard to put down his pen before he had exhausted his topic, and sometimes his readers. Now, though, writing with few resources at hand and often with an impatient printer pacing nearby, he found a leaner, more focused style. Under pressure, his natural skepticism took on heat; his prose turned not ragged but muscular.
"Are not popular assemblies frequently subject to the impulses of rage, resentment, jealousy, avarice, and of other irregular and violent propensities?" he asks in No. 6. "Laws are a dead letter without courts to expound and define their true meaning and operation," he warns in No. 22. And there is the cool, cadenced appraisal of military power in No. 25: "War, like most other things, is a science to be acquired and perfected by diligence, by perseverance, by time and by practice."
Chernow, who quotes those passages in his biography, admires most of Hamilton's writings, but he sees something extraordinary at work here. "There is a lucidity and brevity and coherence to The Federalist Papers that I think actually come from the deadlines," he says. "Some writers do their best work when they are working under certain constraints. And I think that was true of Hamilton; he was forced to compress and distill his arguments in The Federalist Papers. They are just models of concision."
There are moments, too, when Hamilton seems to be peering through his prose as through a window, and the 217 years between us falls away. In No. 36, his observations on liberty and social class leap from the page:
"There are strong minds in every walk of life that will rise superior to the disadvantages of situation and will command the tribute due to their merit, not only from the classes to which they particularly belong, but from the society in general. The door ought to be equally open to all."
It is of course a portrait, in prose, of Hamilton himself. The power of his pen opened many doors for him and for the young nation he shaped. "His entire life story," Chernow marvels, "revolves around his ability to use words."
Donald Challenger is a writer, editor and teacher who lives in Clinton, N.Y. Much of the historical information in his article is taken from Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton (The Penguin Press, 2004) and Richard Brookhiser's Alexander Hamilton, American (The Free Press, 1999), as well as the Brookhiser-curated exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America, on the Web at www.alexanderhamiltonexhibition.org.
The portraits of Alexander Hamilton were reproduced from materials in the College archives.